COVID effect: Pendency of cases in district courts went up by 13% in 2020, finds think tank

Disposal of cases saw a decrease of 42.33%; case filings went down 32%

By Nandita Banerji
Published: Thursday 15 December 2022
The think tank looked into data from 642 district courts. Photo: iStock
The think tank looked into data from 642 district courts. Photo: iStock The think tank looked into data from 642 district courts. Photo: iStock

The COVID-19 pandemic had an acute effect on the Indian judiciary, increasing the pendency of cases in district courts by over 13 per cent in 2020, according to an analysis by Vidhi Center for Legal Policy, an independent legal research think tank. This was the highest such pendency since 2013.

The Supreme Court announced its decision to begin conducting virtual hearings through video conferencing March 23, 2020. While the apex court proceeded at a reduced capacity, high courts had to temporarily shut down along with the district courts under their jurisdiction.

It took the courts some time to determine how to quickly adopt technological solutions to ensure accessibility to the institution, according to the think tank. The judiciary of every state adopted different measures to utilise their limited capacity optimally.

Read more: COVID-19 & the ‘Dharavi Model’: Reportage from the ground

However, most of the issues concerning the judiciary in India, including the pendency of disputes, is a district-level problem, more than state or national level, according to Vidhi.

While nationwide figures and data are essential, they do not reveal the extent of disparity in accessibility in various parts of the country, as well as the variations in the disruption of judicial function during different phases of the lockdown, the think tank said in a press note.

District courts overall saw a sharp increase of 13.45 per cent in the pendency of cases between December 31 2019 and December 31 2020, the highest since 2013, as per the data available in the public domain, it added.

The think tank looked into data from 642 district courts and divided them into five zones for ease of analysis.

The case filings decreased 32 per cent during the pandemic as the number of cases instituted went from a total of 46.44 million in 2018 and 2019 to 31.55 million in 2020 and 2021, it said.

Disposal of cases saw a decrease of 42.33 per cent, dropping to 22.42 million in 2020 and 2021 from 38.89 million in 2018 and 2019, it found.

Amongst the criminal cases disposed of during the pandemic period, bail applications were prioritised across all zones, Vidhi said. An overall reduced disposal rate resulted in a significant reduction in the disposal of execution petitions during the pandemic years across all zones.

Read more: COVID-19 lockdown: Nepalese migrant worker dies just metres away from his home

The overall disposal rate across district courts suffered and hence, only courts in a few states like Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Odisha were able to significantly increase the disposal of actual number of bail applications as compared with the two years prior to the pandemic, the think tank said.

The district courts under the most well-established and historically significant high courts at Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Gauhati have performed most poorly in their zones, Vidhi said.

This was with respect to both case institutions and disposals during the pandemic and the reasons need to be studied, it suggested.

While the COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented event, the judicial system must learn from it and should incorporate measures to prepare for natural, medical, and human-induced disasters in the future, the think tank said.

It suggested several specific action points, like creating a disaster-resilient judicial infrastructure, increasing the flexibility of court proceedings and enabling a participatory approach towards disaster management.

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